You’re stuck. You were tracing your ancestor’s land ownership, and everything was going just fine. He bought; he sold; he bought; he sold; he bought again . . . but when and where is the sale of that last tract? It’s clear he didn’t own the land when he wrote his will, so what happened to it?
Since the recording of deeds was not a legal requirement for most of US history, it’s entirely possible that your ancestor sold his land and signed a deed, but the grantee simply didn’t record it at the county court house. But there’s another common possibility that isn’t commonly considered.
You may occasionally encounter two closely related terms: sheriff’s sales and/or sheriff’s deeds. A sheriff’s sale is “the forced sale of an individual’s property, usually because of failure to pay taxes or because of a court order. After appropriate public notice, the sheriff would auction the land, usually on the courthouse steps. Often the deed is indexed under the sheriff’s name—or just ‘sheriff,’ sometimes found at the end of the S’s in the index—rather than that of the former owner.” A sheriff’s deed, then, is the deed associated with that sale.
That’s right. Some deeds are indexed under sheriff as grantor rather than the surname of the owner. Who knew? In fact, this category of deeds can be so voluminous that some jurisdictions maintain volumes of sheriff’s deeds entirely separately from other deeds; in Somerset County, Pennsylvania, for example.
On 13 March 1860, Perry Walker, High Sheriff of Somerset County, went into court and acknowledged his deed to James Lancaster. The land was a 234-acre tract in Southampton Township, adjoining the lands of Samuel Wilhelm, Michael Troutman, William Combs, Ambrose Magus, and others, the same tract that James Lancaster, deceased, sold to Joseph W. Souder and Isaac C. Reeves. Sold as the property of Souder and Reeves at the suit of Daniel Leply, guardian of Lydia and Noah Lancaster and committee of Susan Lancaster for $600.
This is an example of a Sheriff’s deed that is not for non-payment of taxes. The circumstances surrounding this sale relate to the estate of James Lancaster. From this deed we can begin to see a family structure for the Lancasters, approximate a death date for (the elder?) James Lancaster, approximate ages for the children with guardians, and see an explanation for how (the younger?) James Lancaster came to own the same property as the deceased, even though it had been sold to two others.
On 12 September 1832, Isaac Ankeny, Esq., Treasurer of Somerset County, went into court and acknowledged his deed to Charles Ogle, Esq. The land was a 335-acre tract in Greenville, “said to be the property now or late of Thomas Vickroy” and “sold for the non payment of Taxes for the year 1829, 1830, and 1831, for the sum of $74.”
This example shows a deed prompted by non-payment of taxes. Unlike many jurisdictions, however, Somerset County’s Treasurer is responsible for these sales and deeds, rather than the Sheriff. It serves as a good reminder that it’s useful to get familiar with local laws and practices concerning land transfers, taxes, insolvency and bankruptcy. See, for example, Meryl Schumacker, “New York County Insolvency Assignments at the New York City Municipal Archives,” New York Researcher 28 (2017), no. 2, 8–11. Also, Patricia Glowinski, “Bankrupt! The New York County Supreme Court Insolvency Assignments Records,” 23 February 2018, NYC Department of Records & Information Services (http://www.archives.nyc/blog/2018/2/22/bankrupt-the-new-york-county-supreme-court-insolvency-assignments-records)
This example also prompts us to consider other positions or entities that may serve as the official grantor for a deed.
In New York County, for example, deeds such as these are not found under “sheriff” or the actual name of the sheriff. Instead, several other entities served as grantors under similar circumstances:
Commissioners of Bankruptcy
Commissioners of Forfeiture
Commissioners of Partition
Comptroller of the City
If you can’t find the sale of your ancestor’s land, consider the sheriff and his cohorts. Narrow down the time period to consider as best you can, and spend a little time going through the sheriff’s deeds for that period. If the sheriff wasn’t the one to fill this role in your research areas, it may take some additional time to discover the various entities that acted as grantors. But these small efforts could pay big dividends.
 Patricia Law Hatcher, Locating Your Roots: Discover Your Ancestors Using Land Records (Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Company, 2016), 200.
 Perry Walker, High Sheriff, to James Lancaster, sheriff’s deed, 12 March 1860, Sheriff’s & Treasurer’s Deeds, Somerset County, Pennsylvania, 2:79 (FHL #559,649); image at FamilySearch.org.
 Isaac Ankeny, Treasurer, to Charles Ogle, treasurer’s deed, 12 September 1832, Sheriff’s & Treasurer’s Deeds, Somerset County, Pennsylvania, 1:70. (FHL #559,649); image at FamilySearch.org.